An award-winning architect from New York City and a founding partner at LEVENBETTS, Stella Betts has made a mark on the architectural industry with her designs at a range of scales. She is well recognized internationally, through awards, publications, and exhibitions. Her domain of design mainly includes public spaces, housing, residences, furniture, and exhibitions. She has served in many architectural juries, taught at various universities, and is a member of the Board of the Architectural League of New York.
Stella Betts started her journey in architecture at Connecticut College where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree. She stepped into the architecture industry after completing her Master of Architecture from Harvard GSD. Some of the prestigious universities she has taught at include Parsons School for Design, Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, The Cooper Union, and Syracuse University School of Architecture. She then co-founded her organization ‘LEVENBETTS’ along with David Leven and bagged various fellowships and awards including Architectural League of New York for the Emerging Voices, Architectural Record’s Design Vanguard, and Young Architects Forum. The architect currently serves on the board of the Architectural League of New York.
A brainchild of Stella Betts and David Leven, LEVENBETTS within the first ten years of establishment has been notably published in a monograph called Pattern Recognition that highlights the first ten years of the firm’s practice. The studio has designed many buildings and written many books including “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a House” – A feature of 13 residences and 13 topics related to domestic spaces that is all set to be published in the Fall of 2021.
Stella Betts believes that there can never be a single way of perceiving things; there are at least 13 ways to perceive a design, 13 ways of scaling, 13 ways of sourcing materials, 13 different methods of doing things, 13 ways of perceiving a site,13 ways of drawing a line and 13 ways of answering a question in an interview. The architect studies the transformation of the functions and the purposes of a building which can be seen in the project “Brooklyn Heights Interim Library”, based in New York City. Rather than just incorporating reading, research, and books in the space, she designed the spaces to incorporate community facilities and additional social programs, inviting a larger user group. Her ideas scale much more than just a single idea, they are never represented in a single style and never serve a single purpose.
Each one of her projects is designed to be an integral part of the local community. She strives to instill a sense of permanence in impermanent spaces. She is fascinated with multidimensionality and the generosity of free, open public spaces and tries to incorporate them in her projects. Betts gives utmost importance to the relationship that her buildings have with their sites. She aims to tear down inequality and injustices through architecture as architecture itself is implicated in injustices. Ranging from the scale of an entire city to a small installation, the space is defined and produced with a certain predetermined impact. The architect tries to convey a message that is equitable and welcoming through her designs. “Who gets access to what?” is a preliminary question that she always keeps in mind.
The architect is fearless in her approach. She believes that art and architecture are tools of revolution and social change, by embracing paradoxes and contradictions. Flexible spaces give people the maximum agency over their surroundings, she says. The artist finds it amusing that a simple shape can take on a life of its own when a mere variable is changed; a scale or an angle while its planimetric organization is kept constant. She pushes her bounds to the maximum extent and breaks the rules of a system she creates for herself.
Betts once contributed hollow trapezoids made of concrete that could be assembled in various ways forming different shapes, for an exhibition “Unpacking the Cube” at the Chamber gallery in Chelsea. She went forward to use the same style to design her weekend house in Hudson and incorporated these shapes in the design of outdoor benches in Miami Beach, and a painted plywood pavilion named “Zoid” at Art Omi, near Ghent.
Although mostly modernist, she acknowledges the pitfalls of pinning her work mainly to modernism and works with openness, voids, and fluidity.
The architect tries to draw a perspective from other disciplines and not just from architecture. She also likes viewing spaces in films, to study the role that the spaces play in different scenes to unsheathe their significance.
The Scale of Living Spaces
Designing houses has always been an integral part of the architect’s practice. Stella Betts explores the opportunities to organize her living spaces that don’t confine into something too specific. She tries to mix and match the spatial qualities and functions of different spaces in the building. She views houses as habitable sculptures where the user is allowed to use spaces however they want to and assign functions as per their choice. She believes in reducing things to radical degrees of informality and an incomplete level of finish to bring back a level of rawness and avoid divorce from nature and others. There are no primary or secondary spaces in her designs; no space is privileged over another. She tries and establishes a relationship between every single room in the house and the site.
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Carson, K. (2021). Meet the 5 women changing architectural academia, activism, innovation, and design leadership. Architect News [online] Retrieved from: https://archinect.com/news/article/150221281/meet-the-5-women-changing-architectural-academia-activism-innovation-and-design-leadership
McKeough, T. (2017). Tiny Loft Living. The New York TImes [online] Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/05/realestate/tiny-loft-living.html
Yale Architecture (2020). Stella Betts Critic. [online]. Available at: https://www.architecture.yale.edu/faculty/917-stella-betts [Accessed 07 October 2021].
University of Virginia, School of Architecture (2020). Stella Betts [online]. Available at: https://www.arch.virginia.edu/people/stella-betts [Accessed 07 October 2021].
Cornell AAP (2020). Stella Betts [online]. Available at: https://aap.cornell.edu/people/stella-betts [Accessed 07 October 2021].
T Space / Steven Myron Holl Foundation. (2020). David Leven and Stella Betts of LEVENBETTS, [YouTube video]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7SvDewENYk [Accessed: 07/10/2021].
Margolies, J, and last name of Betts, S. (2018). Stella Betts and David Leven Free Architecture From Preconceptions.